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4 Things to Know about Dune, the Sci-Fi Movie with Religious Themes

4 Things to Know about <em>Dune</em>, the Sci-Fi Movie with Religious Themes

Paul is a smart, deep-thinking teen boy who was born into a family of nobility and who is trying to find his place in the world.

The year is 10191, and Paul and his parents are living on the nearly uninhabitable planet of Arrakis, which is the political center of the universe despite being covered with sand. 

Arrakis is the only planet where melange – a­­ high-priced natural resource – can be harvested. And melange, or "spice" as it is called, is necessary for space travel.

Paul's father, Duke Leto Atreide, was assigned to Arrakis by the emperor to oversee the spice-harvesting operation. 

Leto, though, believes the assignment was a trap in order to have his family killed. 

Paul, too, believes danger is lurking around the corner. In fact, he has been having a series of dreams he believes could be prophetic – dreams about the future of him and his people.

Not everyone, though, accepts Paul's dreams as prescient.

"Dreams make for good stories, but everything important happens when we're awake," he is told.

Will anyone listen to Paul?

It's all part of the new science fiction movie Dune (PG-13), which is based on the classic story and stars an all-star cast, including Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa and Dave Bautista.

Here are four things you should know about the film:

1. It's Based on an Award-Winning Novel

This isn't the first Dune film, nor will it be the last. (It's called "Dune: Part One" on the screen.)

A 1984 movie of the same name was a major flop, grossing only $30 million on a $40 million budget. It was directed by David Lynch. 

All are based on the 1965 book by Frank Herbert that won a Nebula Award and a Hugo Award for best sci-fi novel. The Nebular Awards website calls it "undoubtedly the grandest epic in science fiction" and a "stunning blend of adventure and mysticism, environmentalism and politics."

The plot of the 1984 movie was criticized for straying too far from the book. 

Denis Villeneuve, who directed the 2021 version, is among those who didn't think the 1984 film was close enough to the book. He also helmed Arrival and Blade Runner 2049

"When I read the book as a teen ... I was mesmerized, and I saw the full potential of it. And I remember being very excited when David Lynch's Dune came out in the theater," he told the YouTube channel HMV. 

Lynch's movie "had a lot of strength and a lot of beauty in it, but also things that deviated from the novel," Villeneuve said. 

Dune 2021 is "closer to the spirit of the book," Villeneuve said. 

He calls it his "dream project."

2. It's not 'Star Wars'… but Still Fun

Advertisements for Dune have used a quote from a Collider reviewer calling it "the next Star Wars, the next Lord of the Rings." I wouldn't go that far. The plot in Dune moves slower than every movie in those groundbreaking series. It's more cerebral. There's less action. Additionally – in case you know nothing about the film – there are no space battles (although there are battles on land). 

Still, it's entertaining. (When the credits rolled, my 13-year-old son was ready to watch Part Two.) Factions battle over "melange," a so-called spice that is harvested from Arrakis' sand and that is necessary to travel the galaxy. That same spice, though, is considered by the native Fremen to be a "sacred hallucinogen, which preserves life and brings enormous health benefits," we are told. The spice is harvested by giant machines that must avoid sandworms – giant worms that are hundreds of feet long and eat anything in their path. The preferred mode of human flight in Dune is the wing-flapping dragonfly ornithopter, which looks like a cross between an insect and the body of a helicopter. 

Star Wars creator George Lucas has said Herbert's novel influenced his own story, and it doesn't take much effort to see the parallels: a boy grows up on a sand-covered planet to rescue his people. He learns the way of a mysterious religion. (See below.) His nemesis is the emperor. That sounds like Luke Skywalker, but it's actually Paul Atreides.

No doubt, many children this Christmas will be playing with ornithopters and Paul Atreides figurines. 

3. It's a Religious 'Melting Pot'

Brian Herbert, Frank Herbert's son, once called the Dune universe a "spiritual melting pot" in which "religious beliefs have combined." The religion in the novel, Brain Herbert wrote, includes elements from Buddhism, Sufi mysticism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism. 

"Dad drew on a variety of religious influences, without adhering to any one of them," Brian Herbert wrote.  

The movie mirrors that syncretism. Some believe Paul is the "messiah" or "the one" – the boy who will save his people. Characters discuss a belief in "the way." In one scene, we see a group of people – their faces partially covered – reading small books of a sacred text and holding beads. We hear the phrases "God willing" and "God in heaven."

Paul's mother tells him her people have been crossing bloodlines to create a "mind powerful enough to bridge space and time, past and future." That person is Paul. 

Dune is a science fiction movie, but it also is a religious film. 

Of course, Star Wars, too, had religious themes. It even had a "chosen one." 

Stories like these are a reminder that all persons, theists and atheists alike, are chasing meaning beyond this natural world. Too often, though, we're on a dead-end road. As Pascal once wrote, we have a void in our soul – an "infinite abyss" – that can only be filled by "an infinite and immutable object." That "object" is our Creator: God Himself. 

That's fodder for discussion with your science fiction friends.

4. It Earns Its PG-13 Rating

If language, sex and violence are your only concerns – and they shouldn't be – then you may find Dune to be a "leaner" movie than many superhero films. The movie contains no sexuality and minimal coarse language (details below). The battle scenes are typical for a superhero and science fiction film, with plenty of bloodless explosions and deaths. (Although, in several scenes, we do see a person's hand coated with blood.)

Still, Dune has a few scenes that may trouble young viewers (and trouble parents, too). The emperor – a large grotesque man – floats through the air like a witch. A group of soldiers stands in procession as it listens to a low-voiced man chant, similar to what is done in Buddhism. The giant worm eats people. And there are a few off-screen, implied beheadings.

But for older viewers, it can be entertaining. 

Villeneuve, the director, said his goal was to make the movie enjoyable to those who had never read the book. For the most part, he succeeds. 

Rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing images and suggestive material. Language details: A-- (1), h-ll (2), d--n (2), s--t (1).  

Entertainment rating: 3 out of 5 stars. 

Family-friendly rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Photo courtesy: ©Alon Amir/Warner Brothers

Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chroniclethe Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.